Urban Homestead Garden (squarefoot gardening abridged)

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Picture of Urban Homestead Garden (squarefoot gardening abridged)
We're turning the concrete jungle backyard of our townhome into an experiment in sustainable urban homesteading. Here's how you can add some OCD (i.e. easy to maintain) gardening space using an adaption on Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening practices (build up, don't dig down and organize in sq. ft.).

Super easy, lots of fun.

  • NOTE!!!! Before anyone comments about pressure treated lumber...READ THE INSTRUCTABLE, we already advise against it in there and just because the wood LOOKS like treated lumber to you, doesn't mean it is. It's poplar. Poplar and a non-white balanced cheapo camera!!! Leave it alone or offer to buy me a better one. And YES, I totally abuse my kids. We've already dealt with THAT too in the if your comment isn't about the topic at hand or not a question, with all due respect....keep it to yourself. Thx.
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Step 1: Planning and Materials

Picture of Planning and Materials
Bartholomew's plans call for 4'x4' boxes with space for walkways around the edges. This makes the perfect size to reach the garden from all sides. Not having the luxury for space, we cut this down to 2'x4' boxes since we wouldn't be able to access the back of the box. So adjust your materials accordingly if you go full size.

MATERIALS we needed for 2 2'x4' boxes:
- 3 pieces of 1"x6"x10' lumber*
- screws (we used 2" decking since we had some laying around)
- covering for the bottom (we used old window screen, but plastic, fabric, plywood would work too)
- industrial screws
- String
- compost, newspaper, potting soil of choice (See Bartholomew's site @ for his super mixture. This should probably vary depending on what you will be growing though.)
- Plants and/or seeds

- Saw (we used a jigsaw since we are masochistic...I mean live in a townhouse and don't have the room for a table saw)
- Industrial Stapler
- Electric Screw Driver

  • bonus for reclaimed lumber, but sadly since the building slump hit our area pretty hard and we haven't had any hurricanes (knock on wood) recently, recycled/reclaimed lumber is hard to come by. Use poplar if you can afford it, some plants dislike pine and pressure treated could release chemicals into the soil (or so I heard).
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Chard6 years ago
just a little tip for anyone having problems with slugs and snails munching their crop - Put broken egg shells around the edges of your box with something like a hot glue gun. the mix of pointy edges and a porous material means that the slimy buggers dont like it one bit! as for caterpillers im out of ideas unless you cover the area in a fine mesh to keep out all flying critters!
Ha... one time I had a massive amount of caterpillarsjust as I started my crops... not really sure why, but they died off.
and you still ate the crop? u werent worried that maybe thats what was killing the caterpillars
Plus it was far away... they were in a tree stuck in a spider web like thing.

Sorry to say that even the branch which the tent caterpillars infest with their webbing MUST BE REMOVED, CUT OUT AND BURNED. They are a plague and must be dealt with mercilessly. We've only had to remove small parts of trees because we always look up for those things. Sometimes we see bird nests and that makes us happy!

It was in my tree... from what I saw they were kind of... small... almost like they were cut in half... kind of looked like they were in a spider web or something... No I wasn't worried... if it was toxic then all of the other bugs would have died.
If the caterpillars were skinny, about 1" long, dark grey or black & slightly striped, they were probably tent caterpillars. They eat tree leaves - don't know if they eat garden plants - and they should be eliminated. What we do around here is wait till dark, when they all return to their webby nest. Then we cut the branch off and burn the nest in the bonfire. If you leave them alone, the whole neighborhood could get webbed up in the coming years, and the trees will be eaten bare and occasionally die from it!
DIY-Guy Chard12 months ago

Crush macadamia nut shells or hazelnut shells (also called filberts) last a long time and deter the tenderfooted slugs and other varmits. Some orchard managers are surrounding the bases of their trees with these nut shells once a year and enhancing the soil via slow composting. A two-for-one effect.

Solderguy6 years ago
I wouldn't use treated lumber because it might be treated with poisons like arsenic and mercury to keep termites at bay. You can use terracotta troughs instead.
DIY-Guy Solderguy12 months ago

Lumber yards label the treated wood with the names of the chemicals. Mercury is not allowed by default in many countries. Not a big concern for a thinking person. Have a nice day!

Here is a great article on pressure treated wood for gardening -
neigerg4 years ago
 Since meeting your instructable, I look forward to April to begin planting. I have constructed 2 square foot style gardens since and wanted to update you. My friends call it a true organic garden because I used some discarded wood shelves from a small home project to make sections and I also used old wine boxes. My only question now is, do you have an idea for a self watering system?

Again, thank you for the instructable!
DIY-Guy neigerg12 months ago

Self-watering in a small space can be done with filled water bottles turned upside down with the neck buried into the soil. Place caps with a tiny hole on them if you feel it's watering too fast. Place bottles between plants in the middle of the grid lines where the lines cross over. Watch for bottles that do not drain and check for soil blocking the drain opening.

alochin6 years ago
I haven't read the book, but this is really a great experiment. This kind of gardening could make a big difference for potentially millions of people. The challenge I see is nutrient cycle. There is little soil, so it will quickly be depleted by the vegetables growing in it. So the key is recycling to the maximum. That means all (I mean all) byproducts of growing and eating the vegetables must return to the soil. That includes humanure. So the humanure handbook might be a good complement because there are risks in doing this. I could see a container, such as a half barrel used to hold the compost on the balcony, at some distance from the planters. Steve Solomon also has a good organic fertilizer recipe, where you buy bone meal, fish meal, lime and something else I forgot in bulk, and mix it in the right percentage, and then side dress your plants (sprinkle the fertilizer at the sides of the plant). When the season is over, grow green manure in the same soil, to protect it, and capture nutrients such as nitrogen. Because it is small scale, the amount of nutrient going out (vegetables) and going in (manure, water, fertilizer...) must be very difficult to balance. Also, since you don't have must surface, use depth instead to allow your plants to grow generous roots. The way a plant grow is by capturing solar energy in the roots during the day (in the form of chemical compounds, mostly sugar), and draw that energy to grow at night. Plants can't capture sun energy and grow at the same time. So small roots mean small growth. I see soil depth as a crucial parameter of your garden. To simulate the roots to grow deep, water more generously, but less often, to let the water soak the subsoil, and force the roots to go get it downward once the topsoil has dried. Andre.
Humanure is a risk for Hepatitis A and other diseases. It must be composted very carefully and thoroughly.
DIY-Guy saintneko12 months ago

Right, infection is a consideration. But a large quantity of heat or time will take care of that. Some people just make a big pile and when they dump it for composting and aging they wait a year from the time they dump it in to a pile. Plant a dated stake in the pile and it's easy to know when it's ready.

shellberry (author)  alochin6 years ago
We were worried about this too, I started composting directly on top of the soil, so we don't lose any of the nutrients (see the note on the first image). It is working great. I'm nervous about delving into humanure in such a small space...but I am interested.

I've read that human urine is great for nitrogen and I threaten my plants I will pee on them if they misbehave :)... the idea of an S/M relationship with my plants is...delightfully intriguing and warrants a blog.

I've also read that you can use the crystals from disposable diapers in the gardendisposable diapers in the garden as well... and I have my eye on an enviroletenvirolet..maybe for christmas! Nothing says "yay! birth of jesus!" like a toilet?
It is also great to kill fungus on fruit trees. Commercial growers use a antifungal that contains urea. Urea is found in urine. Just be sure to cut it 1/4th urine to 3/4 water and don't do it during the heat of the day. If you follow this it won't hurt your plants foliage and it will provide an environment that fungus doesn't like. Plus any that drips off provides nitrogen to the soil.
DIY-Guy fuzvulf12 months ago

We use it to control leaf curl on our cherry and apple trees. But even more important are the fungal infected leaves at the base of the trees. Get rid of them, burn them! Ants climb through the fungus and carry it up to the treetop leaves when they are farming aphids. One thing that helps stop ants from wanting to climb the trees is to put a sticky ring around the trunk. Double sided carpet tape works ok and eventually falls off but looks like trash on the ground. Another option which we have not tried is to paint sticky stuff on the trunk. We avoided that method just in case the bark might become damaged in a full ring around the tree.

shellberry (author)  fuzvulf6 years ago
That explains the reason our powdery mildew disappeared from our coffee tree as soon as we started potty training our daughter. We've been dumping her training potty on the tree (pee pee only). Now she runs around after she is done wanting to dump her potty on the plants, guests look horrified (the ones who don't know us very well). Lol.
DIY-Guy shellberry12 months ago

I came across a reference for 20/1 dilution (water/urine) for a nitrogen feed every two weeks. That also allows the smell to die down in between. Apologies for not having the link to the reference. I can say though that it works in our garden, and we stop when fruit appears after the bloom stage.

Actually I've proven that human urine will make grass greener :) don't ask how I proved that. >.<
plants growing in human urine... cow poo as a fertiliser... all of this world is unbalanced!
shellberry (author)  James (pseudo-geek)6 years ago
I can imagine...growing up my brother and his friends use to pee off the deck redneck style when they were drunk...we had the greenest patch of grass a few feet in front of it. :)
On that note, urine should be completely sterile if you're healthy, and is no harm to anybody, unless you enjoy the "zing" of drinking it. Urine also has a helluva lot of nitrogen, and is good for phosphorus and potassium, and it has so much that it can hurt the plants, so it's recommended that you water it down. I found this site, which says it all:
neigerg6 years ago
i just completed my homestead garden and it turned out awesome. Thank you so much for your instructable. I built mine into an 8x4 rectangle (32 1" sections) and i have planeted beets, collards, kale, turnips, and mustard greens. I used Miracle Grow organic garden soil mixed with red georgia soil and some compost- egg shells, fruit and such. I am looking forward to my garden and again thank you. Now i just wish i knew how to build a time released watering system. Any ideas?
I do not know if you have yet found a way to do self-watering, but wicking systems are fairly self watering, and require only the effort to build the wicking system into the construction of your project up front. I have read several good ible's here on wicking wastering systems. Not good as an after completion upgrade though.
saingworth3 years ago
is it possible to have this garden indoors?
Eleniel3 years ago
Will bring this idea to my home in the Bahamas! I think this would be a lovely idea to have on a deck and to grow our own vegetables

Thanks for the Instructable! I thought it was great and had simple steps and pictures to help fallow along :D
Magnificent! May use this idea as a mini herb garden so it doesn't get too much sun.. ThanQ (=
Trayne4 years ago
Since I am not using my planter for food, but for Flowers, is it ok to use the pretreated wood.  I am not a gardener of any sort, but would like to use a bit of ground that other wise does not grow even grass.
Thinking of putting the box there and then covering the rest of the area with a lava rock or mulch.
Thanks for all the wonderful instructions... and the great photos.. it really helps to see what someone else has done... thanks again
gafisher Trayne3 years ago
Once you start this system you'll enjoy it so much that at some point you'll be tempted to add "just one" pepper or tomato or basil plant; better to avoid treated lumber just in case.  However ... not even treated lumber lasts very long in contact with damp soil, and some untreated woods can impart flavors and odors, and even inhibit growth, so here's a way to kill two birds with one stone.
Before building your frames, no matter what sort of lumber you use, staple a wrap of plastic sheeting ("Visqueen," etc.) around the wood.  You'll have to be a little more careful when gardening not to chop holes in the plastic, but there will be little or no contact between the wood and the soil so the frame should last longer and you won't have to worry so much about things leaching from the wood into the soil.
with a couple of two by fours and some more string, you can add a trellis on the back for vine plants like beans and tomatoes
What a cool design for compact areas.  We have rather large raised beds already established but I think I'll surprise my daughter with one of these for an herb garden.

Thanks so much for sharing this great instructable!
Oily Seldon5 years ago
Hey, This is great! i just finished building this with my girlfriend and it looks great But a question, my garden, like yours, is also on concrete, how did you find the drainage?
shellberry (author)  Oily Seldon5 years ago
it works well with ours. We used a mess screening for the bottom and our patio has a slope for drainage already so no problems. Are you finding problems?
Well its been only 2 days and the water seems to absorbing well or drain away well so i'm sure as soon as i get a large rain ill know more
 we get tropical storms here that bring torrents of rain. the best thing i found was adding some plastic taps to the side of the box near the bottom, turn the taps on during the epic rain and turn them off when u want to hold water
shellberry (author)  Oily Seldon5 years ago
awesome. I am sure it will be fine. We live in FL and get squall line storms every afternoon around 3pm. They are worse this year than the previous yr when we also had the boxes and still seem to be doing fine.
kitsuken5 years ago
Was just wondering, would it be possible to add some plexiglass (the kind used for shed windows) to the top of this to make it into a temporary greenhouse? Maybe some blocks with notches to hold it in place/slide it out from?
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